Schenker Wars?

A few years ago there was a bit of a controversy that broke out of the academic music theory chicken coop and ran around in the eye-of-the-public’s yard. This was magnified a bit by a YouTube video by one popular musician-slash-YouTuber named Adam Neely. The controversy resulted in a major university (University of North Texas) investigating a distinguished professor for alleged racism, an ensuing defamation lawsuit by the professor, and the attention of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). It couldn’t be more exciting for the otherwise invisible U.S. classical music theory community. The only thing missing is Donald Trump (although he does get a mention in the academic paper that started it all). The controversy has escaped the chicken coop again thanks to a recent publication of a book by Philip Ewell, author of the original paper at a meeting of the Society for Music Theory in 2019, and a reaction to the book by linguist John McWhorter, who waded into the fray on the opinion pages of the New York Times.

I’ve been kind of following this thing now for a couple of years. I don’t pay much attention to academic music theory discussions or articles any more – as if I ever did. My relationship to music theory of late has been more mundane, primarily incorporating basic musicianship and theory skills in my private piano teaching. But this relatively new blip on the musical radar has created enough of a stir in my still-functioning heart that I think I can justify dusting off some of my old theory books from the distant past (books which are ultimately destined to life on a shelf in some obscure used bookstore, in the best case scenario, an inevitable consequence of our current attempts to downsize), looking up some articles online, and even giving/taking a few pokes in the Twitter/Facebook music theory culture wars, kind of like a kid who would love to get into the ring with whomever is the current Hulk Hogan, but has to be content with throwing spitballs at the television screen.

During my time on the sidelines, I have come to realize that a couple of questions arise like stubborn weeds in my somewhat foggy and not-so-fertile garden of a brain. Why did Heinrich Schenker become the central figure in this argument? And why has non-Schenkerian theory (presumably a bit more representative of the work of the mainstream musico-theoretical cognoscenti these days), been glossed over or ignored in the process? This odd tilt to the discussion is a bit of a head scratcher for me, if not totally bewildering.

Why Schenker?

In an effort to convince his colleagues that the use of a “White Racial Frame” could be a useful device for determining a way forward for the study of music theory in higher education in the U.S., Ewell focuses his attention on the early twentieth century Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker. This initially seemed odd to me, even given Schenker’s obviously obnoxious views about race, among other things (Ewell’s paper documents them extensively). It’s not as if every music student in the world who has taken a course in Schenkerian analysis would not already know at least a little bit about these views. It’s kind of a big “so what?”

Ewell’s assertion that Schenker has been elevated to a reverential pedestal, analogous to an unquestioned reverence for Beethoven, also seemed odd, this being the 21st century and all. Ewell states in the paper: “If Beethoven is our exemplar of a music composer, Schenker is our exemplar of a music theorist.” Really? In what contemporary, 21st-century music theory world is that true? Although influential, Schenker’s ideas also met with a fair amount of resistance in the academy (“There is no denying that, for many, Schenker remains even today a sort of musical aberration, an outsider to be looked upon with suspicion if not fear.” Morgan, 1978), and if it weren’t for strong support and interest from influential theorists such as Allen Forte at Yale, his ideas probably would not have gained as much acceptance or influence. Nowadays, his theories, or perhaps more accurately his analytical procedures, have found a comfortable place in many institutions of higher musical education as a kind of de rigueur requirement for graduation (somebody correct me if I’m wrong). But that doesn’t mean that music theorists pay much attention to Schenker or take his musical views seriously any more, other than The Schenkerians, that mighty group of musical nemeses whose journal just got cancelled by the mob.

My academic experience with Schenkerian analysis, which at first involved trying to figure out what in the world was going on, and then gradually getting the hang of creating reductive analytical graphs for short pieces by composers like Mozart and Chopin, seemed like a rather abstract exercise not unlike working out species counterpoint exercises or four-part chorale harmonizations. There’s a certain discipline to it that helps form a concept of tonal motion, so it has pedagogical value. From a performer’s point of view, that way of looking at things helps you recognize relatively large-scale linear patterns in a lot of common-practice-era compositions – but I wouldn’t seriously consider it as a comprehensive theory encompassing everything there is to know about tonal music. I remember a lot of pushback and arguing about the theoretical part (Ursatz, Urlinie, diminution, reduction from fore- to middle- to background, that kind of thing) by the theory and composition students in the class – most of whom were probably creating electronic or aleatoric stuff at the time, and were probably much more interested in procedures suggested by contemporary composers than stuffy and rigid theories by a non-composing Austrian theorist. I don’t remember any students taking the theory in its totality very seriously. That’s not to say that some very interesting musical writings about music were not influenced to some extent by Schenker – Charles Rosen claimed such an influence in The Classical Style, for example. But Schenker’s ideas were just part of the mix, and were important or not depending on who your theory teacher was, and what type of music you were studying, performing, or creating.

I think Ewell’s hyperbolic overstatement of Schenker’s importance can be traced to a few simple facts. First, Ewell’s own educational background includes a strong Schenkerian emphasis. He studied theory under Carl Schachter at Queens College CUNY. You can’t get more Schenkerian than Schachter, who studied with Felix Salzer, who in turn had been a student of Schenker in Vienna. Additionally, Ewell earned his PhD at Yale under Allen Forte’s direction. Forte, best known for his development of a set-theoretic approach for studying atonal music (particularly serialism), also published a number of Schenkerian articles and analyses. For example, the introductory chapter to one of the dusty old books I pulled off the shelf (Readings in Schenker Analysis and Other Approaches, ed. Yeston, 1977) was authored by Forte. It would be difficult, given that background, not to view Schenker and his ideas as very important in the theory world. Interestingly, Schachter gets a bit of a pass in Ewell’s 2020 paper. “To my knowledge, the first English-language author to call out Schenker’s racism, and to use that term specifically, was Carl Schachter.” Or earlier, in his discussion of racism in music theory textbooks: “all textbooks that I examined, with the exception of the Aldwell and Schachter . . . featured at least one example by Stephen Foster . . .”

Second, Schenker, given his overtly racist views and attempts to marry his ideology to his practice, is an easy target if you are building a case for the over-arching dominance of the “White Racial Frame” of western music theory.

But then one wonders why more of Forte’s work on Schoenberg and atonality is ignored by Ewell in his paper. Is Schenker really the only exemplar of what a western music theorist is or should be? If Schoenberg developed his dodecaphonic procedures early in the century, and Forte was developing his theories about atonal music later, why is this not also an important strand of western music theory? It is just as western and “white” as Schenker’s. The obvious problem for Ewell is that it would be much more difficult to draw any kind of supposed parallel between Schoenberg’s views on music and any possible racist views he might have held, even if Ewell is right that “Hugo Riemann, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and many others on whose theories we rely all believed in German – and almost certainly white – superiority.” [Side note to any of the nitpickers who have taken Dr. McWhorter to task for the unpardonable sin of conflating the terms “musicology” and “music theory” – Schoenberg did not take kindly to those who considered him a mere theorist]. I won’t ask what happened to Nadia Boulanger or Pierre Boulez (French influence doesn’t count, I guess), but the point here is that, at least in the cases of Schoenberg and Webern, it would be nearly impossible to connect an alleged hierarchical view of human beings, which places white Germans at the top, to their musical practice, either compositional or theoretical. “Emancipation of the dissonance” sounds too much like “equity and inclusion” to gain much traction as support for an argument claiming systemic racism is baked into western music theory.

Why Ignore Current Music Theory?

Dr. Ewell can conveniently ignore current music theory scholarship because it is completely irrelevant to his point, and his point is irrelevant to current music theorists (at least most of them). It is irrelevant because modern music theory scholarship has moved far beyond Schenker. One need only peruse the titles of recent volumes of Music Theory Online (a peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Music Theory) to get a feel for current interests. “The Common Cold: Using Computational Musicology to Define the Winter Topic in Video Game Music” sounds like perfect post-COVID reading for music nerds (especially the ones that play video games in the basement), but hardly a demonstration of the inevitability of White Supremacy in western classical music from the common practice period. It is also irrelevant because frankly, people outside of music theory circles don’t know, and don’t care.

If Dr. Ewell wants to present a provocative paper on systemic racism in traditional western tonal music theory, that’s apparently fine with theorists (except for the Schenkerian remnant, of course). They don’t have a whole lot of skin in the game. They can focus on video games and computational musicology, or “The Techne of YouTube Performance“, or “Rhythmic Techniques in Deaf Hip Hop.” So many interesting and urgent topics to explore – who has time for Schenker? Signing on to a letter condemning a Schenkerian theorist and his journal for supposedly defending and propagating white supremacy and racism provides a bit of additional career insurance. [Addendum: the US theorists’ letter is counter-balanced by this letter from primarily European theorists.] By the way, Ewell’s work has apparently given some people, who really should know better, the impression that Schenkerian theory is *the* dominant theory for today’s theorists. If this is the case, why would they all rise to Ewell’s defense in the NTU scrape, and not worry a bit that the Journal of the Most Important Theorist of All Time now sits on the ash heap of forgotten memories?

I give Professor Ewell credit for creating his own success in a world that is otherwise indifferent to classical music, and not only indifferent to but completely ignorant of classical music theory. His timing for the paper could not have been better. He gains credibility as an anti-racist by refusing to engage with his Schenkerian critics, but simultaneously keeps his Schenkerian credentials; he has stated that he intends to keep teaching Schenkerian analysis. It has pedagogical value for teaching about tonal music, apparently, even if it is shot through with racist ideology. And 2.3 million views on YouTube cannot hurt. That can only be good for book sales.

The Beauty of Bach’s Church Cantatas

My most intimate experiences of J. S. Bach have been through his keyboard music, both as performer and teacher. Plumbing the depths of his non-organ keyboard output is a life-long occupation in itself; moving sideways to explore the church cantatas in any kind of depth would require another lifetime. In lieu of a full-scale immersion, I’m hoping to spend as much time as possible listening to them and reading about them and occasionally looking at some of the scores.

Recently I created a small Spotify playlist of Bach Cantatas, and was surprised by how attractive and pleasant the music is. These cantatas represent a high point in the history of Protestant church music. On the face of it, many might consider them to be too high-brow or esoteric for the average modern-day listener. I was not expecting to be attracted to them for continued and repeated listening. Although certain movements from some cantatas have made it into the “popular” repertoire (e.g. wedding book arrangements of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Sheep May Safely Graze), I rather expected them to be, on the whole, not much more exciting than the old LP recordings of Gregorian Chant I was required to listen to in my undergrad days. Chant can be beautiful, but it was never intended to please the listener; its purpose was to blend into the liturgy, and is best understood in that context, notwithstanding its fleeting popularity in 1990s chill rooms.

For me, Bach’s cantatas are an entirely different matter. I don’t know if it’s the seemingly perfect blend of vocal and instrumental resources, the wide variety of expressive devices and textures, or the rhythmic vitality of many of the movements, but something about them keeps me listening. Like Gregorian Chant, the cantatas were designed for church services, not concert halls or private chambers. Unlike Gregorian Chant, the cantatas utilize the full spectrum of musical resources available at the time they were composed. They express a wide range of thoughts, feelings, and colors. They hold up well as pieces to be performed and listened to even outside of a church service.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Selected Bach Cantatas – English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Popular and Classical Music

The procedures of Haydn and Mozart must be understood in a larger context, that of the creation of a popular style which abandons none of the pretensions of high art. (Charles Rosen, The Classical Style, p. 332)

[I]t is better to write good Gershwin than bad Ravel, which is what would happen if you worked with me. (Maurice Ravel, quoted in “When Ravel Met Gershwin,” Carnegie Hall blog, April 2012)

I really did want to be in Depeche Mode, I still want to be in Depeche Mode. I joined choir when I was 18 years old. I grew up in Nevada, so I went to UNLV for my bachelor’s degree, and I joined choir just on a fluke and the first piece we sang was this piece by Mozart, his “Requiem.” It absolutely changed my life. That’s when I knew there’s something much bigger that I want to do. (Eric Whitacre, quoted in “Q&A with Iconic Composer Eric Whitacre on the Virtual Choir and his 2019 Interactive NAMM Show Performance,”  Kaitlyn Tang,, December 12, 2018)

So if people begin to replace their taste for rock with classical music sometime around middle age, why is this a bad thing? Why is age 40 considered too late? Why are only young people in their 20s deemed a suitable subset of the population? Just because Madison Avenue covets that age group does not mean that symphony orchestras have to campaign for that same sector.
In other words, why don’t we see what a wonderful demographic older people are? They have the most disposable income, the most free-time to attend concerts, and are the most appreciative in finding culture that nourishes them. If they have grown tired of the simple structures of popular music in our culture, and they have graduated to something more interesting and rewarding—halleluiah! (Michael Torke, “The Future of Classical Music Audiences,” Michael Torke blog, January 13, 2018)

I would commission a piece that involved everybody in the community. It would include all generations, amateurs, professionals, non-musicians. Each person would find his or her own expressive voice and join together into a coherent narrative. (Yo-Yo Ma, “Facing the music: Yo-Yo Ma,” The Guardian, November 7, 2016)

Jazz musicians everywhere are all still trying to be little Beethovens: They’re trying to make their improvised variations imaginative and interesting. (Brad Mehldau, “Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane: Installment 2 – Who Needs a Good Melody Anyways?”,

Musical Links

Haydn, Symphony No. 94 “Surprise Symphony,”, II. Andante

Ravel, Piano Concerto in G Major

Gershwin, An American in Paris

Eric Whitacre, What If, Virtual Youth Choir

Michael Torke, Saxophone Concerto

Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, NPR Tiny Desk Concert

Brad Mehldau, After Bach: Rondo

Does Musical Literacy Matter?

Early 15th-century choir monks break new ground by singing from an early version of a PowerPoint projection, completely ignoring the choir director in the process. [The Olivetan Master (Girolamo da Milano) (fl. 1429-d.1449) and the Master of the Lodi Choir Books (fl. 1419-1440). Detail of “Monks Singing the Office” – image from]

The best musicians, in any style, know that to become better you have to practice, both alone and together. But understanding how music works helps any kind of musician serve the church more faithfully with their gifts. Someone who can read notes and play by ear has more tools to serve others. (Bob Kauflin, “Are We Responsible for Musical Literacy in the Church?” Worship Matters Blog, November 2, 2007).

Ours will be a difficult task because music literacy in our surrounding culture is at an all-time low, even though we hear more music in our day-to-day existence than in any culture preceding ours. (Leonard Payton, “How Shall We Sing To God?” in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, ed. John Armstrong, Moody, 1996. pdf).

Back in the Middle Ages (in a distant corner of the early 9th Century), some music-director-monk decided it would be a good idea to put little pictures of musical “notes” (neumes) above the Latin texts of the chants his choir-member-monks were singing, with the ostensible goal of helping them to learn and/or to remember the melody. (For an example of “[probably] the earliest example of Western neume notation that has survived,”  see here). Perhaps some of the choir-monks were veering off the musical path a bit (to the deep consternation of the director-monk), or a tenor-monk was Complaining about staying up late for Compline, complicating the task of following the melismas in the Alleluia. For whatever reason, the practice of using musical notation began, having a huge impact on the development of western music.

Although musical notation served the musical community well for a number of centuries, in our contemporary religious circles it has become a source of confusion, and apparently something to be avoided, at least for congregational use. A few outlier churches still use hymnals, but there is no doubt that the use of PowerPoint projection of lyrics (without any musical notation) has become the standard means for presenting music to the congregation. When it comes to encountering new songs, this situation is both irritating and frustrating to me (and from casual conversations I’ve had, it seems to be for many other people). There is nothing worse than being expected to sing a new song without having any clue about the musical notes and rhythms.

On more than one occasion in more than one setting, I have heard suggestions that the best way for congregants to learn new songs is to look them up and listen to them on Youtube. The worship band will then provide the karaoke background tracks on Sunday morning, and everyone sings along (assuming they can hear themselves above the din and racket of the drums, bass, guitars, and keyboards).  I think we can do better than Sunday Morning Karaoke Hour!

In a slightly confusing series of articles, Tim Challies addresses the problem of abandoning a hymnal altogether (“What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals“), and then seemingly celebrates that fact (“What We Gained When We Lost Our Hymnals.”) I agree with many of the points from both articles, but neither article goes far enough in suggesting any solutions to a real problem. The implication is that there is a binary choice between using hymnals (with musical notation) or using PowerPoint (without musical notation).  However, the choice is not a binary one.

For example, it is possible to project notes along with lyrics on a big screen in front of people; it’s just that few churches seem to do it. It is possible to print notes along with lyrics for newer songs that are not in the hymnal; again, few churches actually do it. Although there are some restrictions, the CCLI license actually allows churches to present songs in a variety of ways to help congregations learn and sing new songs (see the CCLI Copyright License Manual). Although listening to new songs (over and over?) on Youtube can be a great way to learn new songs, it certainly is not the only way, nor is it necessarily the most efficient or realistic way to learn them. Suppose that 25% of a congregation can read music, another 25% can figure out what the melody is from the general direction of the notes, and another 25% is good at following the leadership of the ones who can read. That leaves only 25% totally in the dark about a new song, as compared to 100% if the music is not presented at all.

Musical literacy matters. Even in a simple congregational setting, providing musical notes along with lyrics can facilitate the learning and singing of new songs. Rather than being a distraction, the notation provides the needed musical mapping to help the singer focus on the meaning of the words, rather than wondering what the next note will be.

Could you repeat that?

Substantially, I say something only once, i.e. repeat little or nothing. (Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea, p. 102)

So, essentially my contribution was to introduce repetition into Western music as the main ingredient without any melody over it, without anything just repeated patterns, musical patterns. (Terry Riley, Interview with Gamall Awad and Ammon Haggerty for Rhythmos Magazine, October 1992)

Is repetition in music interesting and engrossing, or annoying and banal? Some people dislike minimalism (the Terry Riley variety) because it’s too repetitive; others like it because for them it produces a sense of calm and well-being, or some other state of consciousness that they’re seeking. Contemporary worship songs are often criticized for mindless repetition of lyrics and musical content, or defended for being so repetitive, or sometimes compared favorably with the repetition found in some of the Psalms. Excessive repetition of particular musical clichés is one of the marks of amateurish song writing and composition. Masterful use of repetition is one of the marks of great song writing and composition. On the other hand, Schoenberg did not endear himself to the general population by studiously avoiding repetition in his music, but there is something to be said for the creative freedom and “developing variation” for which Schoenberg strove.

From a performer’s perspective, understanding repetition in music is one of the keys to gaining a deeper understanding of the essence of the music you are performing. For example, my work at learning a contemporary composition for piano generally goes through several stages: 1) This is incomprehensible nonsense! I have no motivation to keep plowing through this stuff – the music isn’t worth it; 2) Oh, wait! There’s actually some thematic material here that somehow connects to the thematic material there, and it kind of makes sense; 3) I sort of like this part – it’s an interesting development of the main rhythmic motive and melodic progression; 4) This piece is growing on me – I actually like it (after repeated practice sessions)!

I believe (but would have a difficult time proving) that the best music contains repetition on multiple levels that is not always obvious on first hearing, or first performing. This can be true of the simplest folk song, or the most complex symphonic score. The most obvious repetitions are the patterns that either attract or repel us initially. In the case of popular music, the songs that disappear from charts quickly are probably the ones that only repeat obvious clichés; songs that remain popular over time probably have repetitions at other levels that aren’t as obvious at first, but which add to the overall interest of the song.

To illustrate this idea, here are some observations about repetition in one of the greatest Protestant hymn tunes ever written (if judged by its staying power, universal recognition, or use in other major works such as Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony).












(Original manuscript image from; markings are mine)

Martin Luther followed the practice of German Meistersinger and Minnesinger by using Bar form in this hymn tune. The first part of the tune is comprised of a phrase that is repeated (the Aufgesang), and a second (usually longer) phrase not repeated (the Abgesang). Since this is a strophic hymn, the entire hymn tune is repeated with each new stanza. The manuscript above shows two stanzas: two lines of text per stanza in the Aufgesang, and one line of text per stanza in the Abgesang.

Within each stanza there are some interesting repetitions. The first (labeled A in red) takes the form of a descent of a fourth from the highest pitch (“F”) to the tenor or dominant pitch (“C”) in the Aufgesang. The second, also in the Aufgesang (labeled B in red), descends from “B♭” to the lower “F.” The Abgesang begins with an ascent from the lower “F” to the dominant “C,” followed by ornamental neighbor tones above and below the dominant “C” and a drop back to the lower “F.” This is followed by a retrograde (backwards) statement of A, an ascent of a fourth from the dominant “C” up to the highest note “F” (labeled A (rev) in red), another repetition of A (labeled in red), and another descent of a fourth from “D” to “A” (labeled C in red). The phrase containing both A and B at the end of the Aufgesang is then repeated at the end of the Abgesang (labeled D in blue).

The entire melody for Ein feste Burg is contained within the range of a single octave. The repetitive use of the descending (or sometimes ascending) fourth interval, which subdivides the octave into two parts (essentially the two major tetrachords which form a major scale), paired with the contrasting descent of a fourth from the 6th note of the (modern major) scale to the third note (“D” to “A” – labeled C in red) in the middle of the Abgesang, gives this melody unity without sounding like mindless repetition. Unity is also achieved by using the D unit at the ends of the Aufgesang and Abgesang.

Why has Ein feste Burg lasted for so long, and remained singable for almost 500 years? Perhaps there was something of lasting value to the art and craftsmanship of the Meistersinger.


Wikipedia article on Bar form.

Finale from Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 “Reformation.”

Bach – Cantata BWV 80 – Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.

Luther’s Hymn Melodies: Style and form for a Royal Priesthood, by James L. Brauer.


The Backbeat

It would be difficult to argue that the backbeat is not a ubiquitous element in contemporary (mostly popular) music, so ubiquitous as to be nearly inaudible. There was a time when jazz musicians like Taj Mahal found it necessary to lecture a white audience on where to put the backbeat when clapping (or, like Harry Connick, Jr., to subtly add one more beat in an improvisation so that the white audience’s strong-beat claps become backbeats). But now, backbeats are everywhere, and form the basic currency for admittance to any serious attempt at music sales.  If an audience cannot figure out where to clap, it’s not for lack of exposure.

The dominance of the backbeat in contemporary music, across a wide swath of genres and marketing niches, reminds me of sugar for some reason (or  boingonium).  You have to look long and hard to find any examples of popular contemporary music that do not have the backbeat as a prominent feature. This kind of a challenge makes me think that maybe it would be fun either to find examples of backbeats in non-contemporary popular music from a long, long time ago (or classical music from a century or two in the past), or to find examples of contemporary popular music that do not contain a prominent backbeat. You might call it two sides of a contrarian coin.

Old Backbeats

If you search the internet (YouTube) for performances of the mid-13th century English rota Sumer is icumen in, you might find this: Kalabalik – Sumer is icumen in.  Or perhaps you would look for L‘Homme armé, or the Empire Brass recording of Rameau’s Tambourin (18th Century).

Of course, I suppose finding the backbeat as part of modern interpretations of old popular tunes and dance pieces isn’t so remarkable. Maybe finding classical pieces that feature “backbeats” as a natural part of the compositional fabric would be a bit more interesting. One of my favorite examples of this is found in the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony 9 – Allegro assai vivace – Alla Marcia.  Classical composers often used syncopation and offbeat accents as a means of heightening tension or increasing musical drama. In the Baroque era, chains of suspensions in a sequence created such an effect; Bach often employed this device in his concertos: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (I), Concerto for Two Violins (III), Keyboard Concerto in D minor (I). Chopin often used syncopation and hemiola-like effects (grouping notes rhythmically in a way that contradicts the underlying meter) in his piano music, and a striking example of emphasizing beats two and four is found in his Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1.

New Non-backbeats (or nearly so)

It might be easier to find old music containing some semblance of a backbeat than to find new music without it. But it is possible. Sometimes even contemporary Christian musicians find a way to avoid backbeats (or at least a way to treat them in a subtle, creative way). For example, it’s easy to be drawn to Audrey Assad’s version of How Can I Keep From Singing, even though the backbeat is either absent or incorporated in a very subtle manner (can a real backbeat be subtle?). If “popular” music is to avoid the backbeat, it most likely will not happen in mainstream pop or rock, but in the specialized niches and backwaters of creative jazz or folk / world musicians (“ethnic” music). For example, Brad Mehldau’s treatment of the Beatles’ Blackbird features a bit of a soft backbeat on snare in the middle section, but the subtle use of brushes throughout the arrangement downplays any backbeat emphasis, and yet the arrangement sounds fresh and new, rather than just another “trad-jazz” cover.  Snarky Puppy’s Tio Macaco is a contemporary Latin-jazz piece heavy on percussion but almost entirely free of a backbeat (offbeat syncopations, yes; backbeat, no).

Notwithstanding Taj Mahal’s lectures, I find it interesting that a lot of traditional African drumming rhythms are subtle and complex, and more or less lacking in the use of backbeats. In fact, I think it fair to say that many of them contain no real semblance to a backbeat-based pattern. Here are some examples:

As the backbeat gained prominence and came to dominate American (and eventually global) popular music, the more subtle rhythmic variations of various folk-culture traditions seem to have faded into the background. That is to say, even if present, the more subtle variants serve as a kind of background to the backbeat. The backbeat is what sells.

Why has the backbeat become such a pervasive feature of contemporary music? I dunno . . . I think it’s so ingrained in the psyche of the DIY music-making culture, and the major pop-music factory-studios, that very few people stop to analyze it, let alone attempt to avoid it. No doubt, if you slap that rhythm track on an otherwise mundane, run-of-the-mill arrangement, you can raise its value in the marketplace. Just add sugar (or boingonium).




Chronological Snobbery

[Chronological snobbery is] the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 207.)

I was guilty of chronological snobbery in High School. My snobbery was not intentional, but practical, an indifference, apathy, and laziness toward history and Latin – those classes were too much work! I can blame the snobbery on my immaturity, and my immaturity on my youth, but it was aided and encouraged by a Zeitgeist that valued “modernity” and “progress” over tradition and classical education. For example, my high school implemented a new open approach to English classes that allowed me to bypass traditional literature courses for film and media studies (this was in the mid-1970s). Only when I was older did I realize how foolish my attitude and choices were.

I might still be guilty of chronological snobbery, but I now concede that there are some old ways of doing things which are still valid, and in many ways superior to newer ways of doing things.  For example, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms all either studied or were influenced by Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, a book with  influence that spanned at least two centuries and three major musical stylistic periods. Its influence can still be seen in modern counterpoint texts and courses.

Actually, species counterpoint (Fux’s contrapuntal method) is still a thing. Counterpoint and other rule-based, abstract approaches to studying music theory and composition, such as four-part voice-leading exercises, encourage and develop mental and procedural habits that provide a strong basis for evaluating and refining creative musical processes. Unfortunately, modern music technology and a focus on immediate gratification have made it possible to detour around these seemingly mundane and outdated procedures, and with them the mental discipline that results from pursuing them.

Certainly this . . .

Fun & Exciting (Beatmaker 3)!!

. . . is more appealing than this . . .

Boring (Open Music Theory)?

(From Open Music Theory: Composing a First-Species Counterpoint (Kris Shaffer)

In the long run, musicians who work at the latter (counterpoint and similar exercises) are likely to be in a better position to create appealing and enduring music than those who ignore it. This is not to say that studying strict counterpoint is a prerequisite to making appealing music, but the habits of mind that composers of the past cultivated through their study and practice of things like counterpoint produced a “mental infrastructure” that allowed them to create music that, by virtue of its adherence to principles that transcend temporal styles, has endured.  Contemporary musicians (or would-be musicians) make a mistake if they assume that there is nothing to learn from the past. I’m often struck by how “stuck” popular music can  be in its own idioms (this, for example).  The best musicians draw from a well that is both wide and deep.

On the other hand, exclusive reliance on printed music can also be a form of “chronological snobbery.” Popular music is often (but not always) created in an aural, improvisatory, and technological context, with less (if any) reliance on notated sheet music.  Interestingly, classical musicians and teachers are starting to realize the value of these skills (see here and here for examples). After all, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were all gifted improvisers, and C. P. E. Bach devoted an entire section of his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the true Art of playing Keyboard Instruments) to the art of improvisation and realizing figured bass. The classical emphasis on interpreting and being faithful to the composer’s score has resulted in training and practice that often ignores or minimizes the development of improvisational skills.

Yo-Yo Ma, the famous cellist, is among a small but growing group of very famous classical musicians who are leading the way in a new way of making music that incorporates a blend of improvisation, classical sensibility, and popular or folk music traditions.  There are also a number of popular and jazz musicians doing the same thing – musicians like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Sting, The Bad Plus, Bobby McFerrin, Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, and  Bela Fleck.

Concerning the first type of “chronological snobbery” (among non-classical musicians), there are good reasons for studying music and musical techniques of the past. Even though musical styles vary and change, there are certain underlying principles that don’t change, and which can be applied to a wide range of styles. The Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker recognized this. As Steve Larson points out,

Schenker emphasized – as the essential pedagogical meaning of species counterpoint – a focus on “fundamental musical problems”:

The purpose of counterpoint, rather than to teach a specific style of composition, is to lead the ear of the serious student of music for the first time into the infinite world of fundamental musical problems. Constantly, at every opportunity, the student’s ear must be alerted to the psychological effects . . .

One appeal here is that “the infinite world of fundamental musical problems” is relevant to pieces as varied as a Bach prelude, a Beethoven sonata, and a Brahms song (in fact, I would argue that this “world of fundamental musical problems” is also relevant to repertoire much broader than that which interested Schenker). Note also the emphasis on “the ear” – Schenker returns repeatedly to this point. (Steve Larson, “Another Look at Schenker’s Counterpoint,” Indiana Theory Review Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 1994), pp. 36-37)

This viewpoint is echoed and expanded by the editors of the Open Music Theory textbook:

The “fundamental musical problems” we will address in the study of counterpoint center around the way in which some basic principles of auditory perception and cognition (how the brain perceives and conceptualizes sound) play out in Western musical structure. (Open Music Theory, “Introduction to strict  voice-leading”)

Concerning the second type of “chronological snobbery” (among classical musicians), there are also good reasons for incorporating aural and improvisatory skills in music-making. In any case, creating music in a satisfactory manner requires much work, practice, and study. Amateur musicians and dilettantes might prefer to take a narrow, limited approach which keeps them happy in their world, but those who are responsible for producing music for a larger audience can continually work to broaden and strengthen their experience, knowledge, and skills if they want to produce music of lasting value.


Yo-Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor – Hush Little Baby

Wynton Marsalis on Classical Music

Bela Fleck – Bach Partita No. 1003 / Sinister Minister

Sting: A Winter’s Night

The Bad Plus – Variation d’Apollon (Stravinsky)

Behind Pat Metheny’s “Road to the Sun”, written for LAGQ

Brad Mehldau, After Bach